Geology's Founding Lie, Research Time, 04/07/2018

One pleasant piece of history I learned from Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media was the founding of the science of geology itself. It’s not too old, after all.

James Hutton developed the basic concepts, essential theories, and analytic methods of the science of the composition and dynamics of rocky planets over the late 18th century. Hutton wasn’t too well-known for most of his own lifetime, but his legacy is pretty well staked these days.

Charles Lyell brought geological science to the mainstream by the mid 19th century. The explosion of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory certainly helped. It was a beautiful moment of synergy.

Perhaps the greatest achievement humanity will ever manage is
destroying ourselves. We're making the planet we live on utterly
unfit for us to live on it. One oil slick can cover thousands of
square kilometres and destroy billions of living creatures,
countless ecosystems decaying into dust. One stupid accident
among thousands. We've made ourselves epochal, burning
ourselves to death in a fire that consumes a whole planet.
See, one of the reasons why Hutton’s scientific work wasn’t widely accepted was because most people* couldn’t conceive of the Earth being billions of years old. This is a very strange kind of mind-set to get into, because such a thing is taken for granted now.

* In Western cultures, anyway. This scientific work happened at the heart of the globe’s colonial economy at the time, in Europe.

Even if you’re a dedicated Young Earth Creationist, you live in the influence of the conception of Earth and the cosmos as billions of years old. It’s the consensus view of your enemy, the secular culture of science.** You may not believe in the billions-year-old Earth, but you live in a society where that’s the common sense view of most people.

** I don’t use terms like these – “secular culture of science” – as actual elements of how I understand scientific practice and institutions myself. I’ve studied science philosophically and sociologically for too long to accept such a broad term as that. But vague terms like this are, to my knowledge, how extremist Biblical Creationists think of science.

When James Hutton was alive, things were totally different. The notion that the Earth was billions of years old was strange and terrifying. There also seemed to be no need for it. No other process on Earth required millions and billions of years to unfold.

Hence, why Lyell had a much easier time promoting this idea when The Origin of Species hit, and as Darwin himself followed this up with the rest of his works exploring the processes and implications of life being an evolutionary process. The geological concept of the billions-year-old Earth was the physical companion to Darwin’s biological work.

When I was a kid, I used to hear the old Christian ditty, "He's got the
whole world in his hands!" It's a beautiful thing to believe in, but it's
a lie too.
The Terror

Why do I title this “Geology’s Founding Lie,” then? The lie isn’t that the Earth is billions of years old. That’s true, no matter what some other folks want you to believe. The lie isn’t a matter of straight fact, but of scalability.

When you think of Earth as only a few thousand years old – maybe six to seven thousand like the Biblical Literalists, maybe a few thousand more – human existence is of massive consequence. If Earth is so young, then most of the planet’s history is humanity’s history too.

Human significance is obvious on a young Earth because we’ve pretty much always been here, as dominant over the planet as we are. We can very easily believe that the planet is here for us. If Earth is the same age or only a little older as civilizational humanity, then it’s easy to believe that we’re at the centre of Earth’s story.

Geological science introduced a conception of deep time. Accepting geology as valid meant that we had to accept human insignificance on Earth. Earth was no longer for us – its existence was now alien to human needs and histories. You have to learn to let yourself be dwarfed in all aspects.

The lie was that the immense vastness of the planet in time dwarfed humanity in all aspects. You see where I’m going with this. The popular and intellectual conception of humanity, as the Victorian concepts of secularism dominated the reflexive thinking of Western cultures, was that the Earth dwarfed our powers as well.

Earth was so vast that human activity – even the industry driving unprecedented technological development – could never cause the planet real harm. Vastness meant resilience, movement and change so slow as to approach eternity. At least relative to human activity.

This is Parikka’s conclusion on researching this idea in the popular and intellectual culture of the first years of the Holocene era – comparing human existence to the depth of planetary time made us appear entirely insignificant. But that appearance was false in one awful aspect.

The terrible truth of our ecological crisis is that our powers can radically transform the Earth. This aspect of human existence really does achieve geological vastness. And we’re completely unprepared to reach that planetary level of power.

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